Public opinion will strongly back a deal to bring policing and justice powers to Stormont, according to a new poll for the Belfast Telegraph.
And while Assembly politicians are at loggerheads on the issue, a clear majority of people here think they are up to the job of taking on the new responsibilities.
The opinion poll also flags up serious nationalist frustration at the continuing impasse between the DUP and Sinn Fein, with more than half of Catholics saying it is important enough to warrant the collapse of devolution.
The publication today of the Belfast Telegraph/Inform Communications survey provides a New Year message to MLAs and Ministers, at the beginning of a crunch period for politics.
The poll indicates there is firm overall support in principle for policing and justice powers being passed to the Assembly from Westminster. A total of 42 per cent of those surveyed wanted the extra powers to be switched when the local parties reach agreement, while 25% backed an immediate handover.
A further 14% said it should take place before the forthcoming General Election.
That puts the total support level for the planned next stage of devolution at 81%, albeit with differing views on the question of timing. Meanwhile, 15% of respondents — 16% of Protestants and 12% of Catholics — said responsibility for policing and justice should never be transferred from Westminster.
Parading is one of the main points of contention in the current devolution stand-off between the DUP and Sinn Fein.
However, just five per cent of those surveyed said it was their top priority on the law and order front.
The Belfast Telegraph/Inform Communications survey was conducted between December 16 and 21.
The Stormont impasse has continued into 2010, despite deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness warning of “deep trouble” if a date for devolution of the powers was not agreed by Christmas.
Findings from the poll suggest strong support in the Catholic community for the push by Mr McGuinness and his Sinn Fein colleagues for swift progress.
Fifty-four per cent of Catholics surveyed said the row over the timing of the handover warranted the collapse of the entire Assembly.
By sharp contrast, only five per cent of Protestants shared this view.
Thirty-three per cent of Catholics also wanted the powers devolved immediately, compared to just 19% of Protestants.
A 57% majority of those surveyed — 54% of Protestants and 62% of Catholics — said they had confidence in the ability of the Assembly to take responsibility for the proposed new powers.
The survey’s publication comes ahead of the meeting of Sinn Fein’s executive — ard chomhairle — in Dublin next weekend.
Meanwhile, the British and Irish governments have also tasked Secretary of State Shaun Woodward and Dublin Foreign Minister Michael Martin with formally reviewing progress in the Sinn Fein-DUP dispute later this month.
Reach political consensus on timing, MLAs urged
Ross Williamson, director of pollsters Inform Communications, unpicks the public opinion findings on policing and justice powers
MLAs will surely take comfort from the fact that 57% of the people polled said they currently have confidence in the Assembly to take responsibility for policing and justice, and that this confidence is shared across the community.
When asked about the timing of the devolution of these powers, reaching a political consensus is the key for 42% of respondents, who want to see devolution take place only when the parties have been able to reach an agreement.
A quarter of those polled (25%) believe devolution should take place immediately with 15% stating that they never want to see policing and justice being the responsibility of the Assembly.
The threat of the collapse of the current Assembly over this issue elicited markedly differing views from the majority of Protestant and Catholic respondents — 63% of people surveyed said that the timing of the devolution of powers should not warrant the collapse of the institutions, 83% of the Protestants polled and 38% of Catholics.
Of the 27% who believe that a failure to resolve the current row should result in the collapse of the Assembly, this figure is made up of only 5% of the Protestants polled but 54% of Catholics.
If and when policing and justice powers are devolved and a Department of Justice is established, the new minister will have many problems to deal with. Reducing crime is by far the most important issue for 54% of the people surveyed.
A quarter (25%) see tackling the threat posed by dissident groups as the Minister’s key priority with 16% citing the need to crack down on anti-social behaviour. Only 5% of respondents believe resolving parading issues as the priority.
Bad news with a few crumbs of comfort for both the main parties
Belfast Telegraph Political Correspondent Noel McAdam says the opinion poll findings include pain and gain for DUP and Sinn Fein
As some MLAs enjoy a further week of furlough — though a few Assembly committees and individual members plan to be at Stormont this week — today’s Belfast Telegraph/ Inform Communications poll should provide should post-festive food for thought.
And for some, if they aren’t already suffering, there could be indigestion.
When Finance Minister Sammy Wilson opens the first plenary session of the new Assembly term next Monday, with a report on the quarterly monitoring round on departmental spending, there will be an air of ‘back to business’. But the backdrop of lingering crisis remains.
Today’s survey includes both positive signs, and pain, for both the main parties. As he continues to try to assess whether unionists have sufficient confidence to allow the transfer to go ahead, DUP leader Peter Robinson can take some comfort that a majority of Protestants believe MLAs have the ability to take on new responsibilities for police, the courts and the prison service.
But it is still not a clear-cut call, with close on four in 10 Protestants (37%) saying they do not have confidence “currently” — suggesting, however, that more could still be won over.
Nonetheless the fact that more than eight out of ten Protestants do not want to see the collapse of the Assembly over the issue cannot be good news for Jim Allister’s hardline Traditional Unionist Voice.
The fact that a majority of Catholics are prepared for the loss of the Assembly over the issue of devolved policing and justice reveals that deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness has been accurately reflecting the level of frustration in the nationalist community. While some of his language may have been apocalyptic, the message is not apocryphal.
It is very important that Peter Robinson realises that.
Equally, Mr McGuinness must take to heart the loud and clear message from more than 80% of Protestants that they are against Stormont falling over this issue.
One of the main signals from the results is that MLAs have much more work to do to win over a sceptical public. Around a third of both Protestants and Catholics lack confidence in their leaders.